The World Rally Championship is the best it's been since the Group B era. The cars are beautiful, fast, and, crucially, evenly matched. That means no race has a foregone conclusion. New events–like a return to Turkey or next year's rallies in Chile and Japan–bring picturesque locations to the calendar and the element of surprise to the teams. While the cars take a beating, fans now enjoy complete live coverage for the first time, with over 400-hours-worth of online feed available on-demand each weekend.
In sunny Turkey, we talked to team bosses, mechanics, promoters, TV crews and representatives of the FIA to learn everything we could about what makes the WRC magic happen all over the world.
Before , TV crews had no chance of doing WRC justice. According to Content and Production Director Florian Ruth, there were action crews out there, but they had to send their material back on scooters, then via helicopter. They also grabbed the on-boards from the cars at the finish line to create a show that went out hours after the action took place. Up until this year, WRC's team easily got beaten by kids uploading clips to YouTube.
Compared to circuit racing, where you have set camera locations and a few hours of action, shooting WRC is like covering the Tour de France. Except WRC happens 13 to 14 times per year, at locations where there's no chance of finding signal. Data flowing at 3-4-5Gs? No such luxuries in the hills of Argentina, or the mountains of Mexico. Not to mention that the crew also needs to follow the race, which can move up to 100 miles between stages.
To make the new live feed happen, WRC now works with a 100-strong TV crew, creating 15 terabytes of data at each event. And their setup is quite ingenious. It starts with a Beechcraft Super King Air, flying five to six hours a day with two pilots and a technician onboard.
While the plane is doing its rounds, up to 65 cameras are rolling on the ground. There's one at both the start and finish lines, ten along the stage, and three to four on-boards per car. Those tiny CCTV units are tuned and upgraded by the crews for this application. There's also the one on the helicopter, flying 45 to 60 minutes for every stage, costing roughly $100,000 per rally.
It takes two days to build the studio, and once the action starts Thursday evening, all cameras send their signals to the plane above, which then combines their feeds into a single compressed file before sending it down to the studio, where it gets unzipped and processed in real time. The instant footage means WRC can finally offer what MotoGP, F1 and NASCAR had all along, reaching a bigger audience and keeping fans happy. And the difference is clear. Between cars driving by, spectators are glued to their phones, following the action all the way through the stages. And when there's no racing, they can peek into the service park as well.
The plane lands mid-day for refueling, but there's no time to waste. If it's not up in the air to collect every signal within a 6.5 mile radius, the rally continues without the feed, and the TV guys are in trouble. On Sunday, there's a 52-minute program covering the entire event, adding a summary to the 20 short clips they put up on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Hardcore fans have over 400 hours of footage available to them after each rally, with on-boards from at least three angles from every car. That's why the crew leaves camp 15 terabytes heavier each time.
Turkey gave us the prefect opportunity to learn why the FIA and WRC's promoters can't bring the series to the U.S. just yet. Mexico and Argentina will be joined by a race in Chile next year, while Canada is high on the WRC's list of future priorities, since they want another snow rally to please tire manufacturers.
WRC left Turkey after 2010, supposedly due to the FIA's location rotation strategy. Now, as a result of work that began two and a half years ago, the race is back at a new location in the south, Marmaris.
WRC's promoters are in constant discussion with the FIA about where they want to see the series in 3-5-10 years. They want to entertain the whole family by creating just enough drama (hence the lack of testing before the Turkish race), but they also need to keep carmakers happy. When it came to Turkey, every box was ticked. Competing manufacturers Ford and Hyundai both have factories there. So does Michelin and Pirelli. The local fan base is substantial enough to guarantee an audience, the government made sure the infrastructure would be up to the task, and Turkey's rally officials were also able to bring all aspects of their existing race up to WRC levels. The FIA doesn't cut corners on safety.
Hosting a WRC race requires a strong business plan and a substantial investment from the area. Yet the series also intends to boost the local economy by extending the holiday season by a week, filling up hotels and restaurants for seven bonus days. This is especially true in the cases of Portugal, Turkey and Spain.
According to WRC Promoter Simon Larkin, they are currently in talks with 14 countries about future races, eight of which feel serious. What's for sure is that the Chilean coast (and the hills 2000 feet above), as well as Japan get their event next year, while Kenya's much refined Safari Rally is set for 2020. A number of Canadian Provinces are also in the running, and with new powertrains coming in 2021-22, new car manufacturers could be too.
Ford has its STs, and one can always hope for a new RS hatchback. Hyundai is new to the game, but its N cars are up to the job. Toyota came up with the GRMN line to cash in on its racing program. While there is no budget cap in WRC, rumor has it that the two Asian brands spend up to $90-100 million a year feeding their WRC ambition. The reigning champion, Britain's Ford-backed privateer M-Sport operates on a modest budget compared to that. When it comes to Citroën, PSA's long term plans are hard to guess. They've been at it since the nineties, but the French team has no race wins so far this year. That needs to change in 2019.
WRC cars can't pack super high-voltage hybrid drivetrains for safety reason, but all parties seem to agree that we will see some sort of electrification introduced for the 2022 season.
A World Rally Championship race in the United States is a wish hard to grant. The first obstacle is a legal one: If the U.S. want to see more than twenty entries, it needs to adopt FIA standards. Then, there's the problem of manufacturers not selling the volume cars their WRC entrees are based on in this market. Last but not least, America would need a few star drivers.
When it comes to having strong fan bases and a massive social reach, Travis Pastrana and Ken Block are hard to beat. Realistically, at 35 and 50, Pastrana and Block are unlikely to keep up with the current generation of young WRC drivers, but their marketing power could certainly get them a seat at the highest level. The people behind WRC know that in the long run, a Canadian race just won't cut it for Americans. The FIA also intends to turn WRC into a truly global phenomenon, and North America is too big of a market to ignore.
Ken Block, who's now done filming Gyhmkhana 10 has never finished higher than 7th in a WRC event. Yet as Ford's former World Rally Cross (WRX) driver, he will race with M-Sport in Spain, and gave his views on America's WRC dreams to our friend Jeremy Hart:
I think it would be incredible. I always fantasized about building a WRC round based in LA. There’re incredible roads, not only tarmac but gravel too close to LA. Not only that, but you would have the full infrastructure of Los Angeles to do it from. There are some great stage rallies in the States and Canada but they don’t have the infrastructure needed like other WRC events in Spain, Turkey or Wales. But, as always, it’s all based around budget, money and public interest.
I’ve done one stage this year and the last one was couple of years before that. I had the chance to do at least one WRC event this year and Catalunya is one of the best. You have gravel and tarmac stages all in one event and the tarmac stages are some of the best roads in the world. For me it is a chance experience the latest WRC cars. You can't jump into a new car like this with two days of testing (one day on gravel and one day on tarmac). That’s not enough to get used to a whole new car. If I end up with a decent position – great.
The current cars are really good - so highly modified that it really makes it you feel like they are from a fantasy world. They have a great sound. And just that performance that on camera it looks so impressive. So I think going rallying is going in the right direction. I’ve love to see it back in the US though.
Almost every sport is down on TV as the internet has given us more variety, it’s also made the saturation of things much higher. So everybody has so many more options of things to view and there are so many more things competing for people’s attention every weekend. NASCAR are really struggling to get people to watch for three hours straight, but that’s why I think they stage rally and rallycross work really well in today’s world, because there’s these short bursts of competitions over a few days makes it more entertaining - at least to me.
I think that we’re in one of the most interesting stages of motorsport in a long time. Before this it was fairly predictable what championships were doing, the ups and downs of who was the best and where things were going. But today it’s like…it’s a whole new ballgame. The electric thing is here, social media - the internet is here – and finding the magic formula in the next five to ten years is going to be really everyone’s goal.
Undoubtably, Mr. Block.
The organizers always want a challenging event, but also a beautiful and recognizable one. Pretty pictures sell WRC, promote the host country and give car sales a push at the same time. Tough stages are guaranteed to shake up the championship. Compared to a flat-out forest race like Finland, Turkey was a frustrating ballet between dusty rocks the size of a my head.
Following the German Grand Prix this year, Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton's biggest problem was that Sky's TV coverage wasn't entirely about his drive. WRC drivers have other concerns.
In Turkey, punctures, an intercom failure, differential issues, broken wishbones, driveshafts, bent steering columns and a Citroën burning to the ground meant luck had more to do with the final result than the drivers and their co-drivers themselves.
Keeping Tommi Mäkinen happy, Toyota finished 1-2 with Hyundai in third. Yet Thierry Neuville's championship lead took a major hit. On Saturday, his i30 WRC's front left suspension literally exploded, punching a giant whole through the hood, and throwing springs all over Stage 8. What followed was a heroic repair attempt by Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul on the side of the road, a long way from the team at the service park.
WRC cars carry a changing variety of spares and tools, but replacing the complete front suspension is never part of the plan. Neuville and Gilsoul are both trained mechanics. Yet when you see them in their fireproof suit, covered in sweat and dirt as they with what used to be the left front one using ratchet straps and phone support from the service park, you understand what it means to win a WRC title. This time, all their effort was for nothing, but Neuville and Gilsoul still have every chance to win it with Hyundai this year.
Malcolm Wilson, the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team's Principal, has a lot to do with WRC still existing. As does Citroën, since back in 2009, they were the only works teams deciding to stay in the game.
Despite being the reigning champion, M-Sport is struggling to keep up financially. The FIA limiting the number of engines and transmissions, as well as the teams organizing logistics and customs together saves a lot of money, but Wilson says a three-car entry still costs a minimum of $30 million per season. Other teams can spend up to triple of that, but M-Sport is a privateer with some Ford support. Dearborn's resources are handy when it comes to optimization and rapid prototyping, but M-Sport still needs to sell WRC cars, which cost $250,000 more now that the cars have been dialed up to Group B speeds. A Fiesta WRC is an $890,000 love affair. As a result, while M-Sport sold 8 to 14 WRC cars in the years before, they only managed to find two buyers in the last 20 months. That throws Wilson's WRC business plan straight out the window, while his company has 230 employees to look after.
All over the world
The logistics of WRC are just as complex as its TV coverage. M-Sport is based in Cumbria, England, a hair under the Scottish border and far from airports. It has 12 trucks at the moment, some of which can be away for the good part of a month. But from Portugal to Sardinia, or Finland to Germany, they go straight from race-to-race to save money. The main parts truck can hold tens of thousands of components, all of which need to go through customs once leaving the EU.
For European rallies, M-Sport sends out an advance team of eight to ten people ten days before the event. It takes up to five days to set up camp. Members of the advance team have other tasks during the race weekend, and so do those eight or so people who use recce cars (old Volvos and new Focus RSes in M-Sport's case) to compare pace notes with reality. Mechanics, engine technicians, you name it. The hospitality team is 12-strong, catering to their junior partners as well. There are 15 engineers, 40 mechanics, a physician and various extra guests from Cosworth or Ford Performance from time to time. In total, around 80 people travel with the team. M-Sport books around 40-60 hotel rooms for a week, with everybody under senior level doubling up in twin rooms.
Long haul trips are different. M-Sport fills up eight shipping containers for Mexico, Argentina, and Australia. But the team also pays for roughly ten tons of air freight, for the expensive bits like the cars and their spare engines. A million dollars are spent on flights every year, with a similar amount on hotels. It all adds up.
The paperwork for long haul trips is extensive and complicated. Choosing which parts to carry is always a gamble. For Turkey, M-Sport had four spare alternators for three cars. If the team is unsure, there's always somebody back at base who can fly to the location with a few extra bits within a day.
The cars often need to be stripped and swapped from tarmac to gravel and back, but nothing compares to Australia. While lithium-ion batteries and liquids need to be shipped anyway, everything has to be cleaned before the last race of the season. No dirt or hazardous material can enter Australia, which means even the recce cars' air filters will come out.
Engine technician/logistics ace Ashley Fowler told us that thanks to those parts and the team's love affair with cutting and welding, he only counted a couple of WRC cars in fifteen years that were completely written off. Rolled fifteen times? Fixable. Needs a new floor, roof and cage? Consider it done. Crashed WRC cars are rarely as bad as they look. At least as far as their mechanics are concerned.
It looks like either Toyota or Hyundai will win the Manufacturers's title this year, yet M-Sport's boss intends to continue at the highest level. Malcolm Wilson also thinks the sport is at its best since Group B, with more spectators, fast, sexy and evenly matched cars, and a world-class live coverage. The teams also work really well together to bring the costs down with the testing and logistics, and when it comes to the next stars of the WRC, , son of Harri Rovanperä would be his guess:
"He's gonna be exceptional. He's got another 12 months with Škoda, but he'll probably be ready for a WRC car by then."
As long as that plane stays up there, we'll be .